From the ages of birth to 5 years, children’s brains are developing rapidly and have an especially great capacity for learning. Early childhood education takes place between birth to age 5, and is important for a child’s social, emotional and physical development. It can take place in various settings including child development centers, daycares, nurseries, home-based learning programs and preschools.

Early childhood education benefits children by giving them opportunities to socialize, cooperate and take turns, which helps them with school readiness and prepares them for a lifetime. Early childhood education programs also give parents a safe and secure place to leave their kids during the day so they can work, attend school or take care of other needs.

Children can enroll in early childhood education programs as early as birth and can often attend until kindergarten begins. Finding an early childhood education center can be overwhelming, so it can be helpful to research options and write down what you are looking for and what questions you may have to select the program that best meets your family’s needs.

Your child’s health care team can also help connect you to early childhood educational resources and provide information on your child’s developmental milestones and social and emotional development.

How to find an early childhood education program that is right for your child

  • Explore the different types of programs and operating hours. There are many types of programs that are offered for part of the day and for a full day. Some programs are publicly funded, such as federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs and state-funded pre-kindergarten. Others are privately funded community-based businesses, including traditional daycare centers where care is provided in a facility dedicated for this purpose and in-home daycare, where childcare is provided to fewer children in a home setting. Many specialty programs also exist such as Montessori and dual language programs.
  • Consider location and cost. These are likely the most important drivers in deciding where to enroll your child. Consider choosing an early childhood center that is close to your home, work or another family or friend who can help pick up your child. Childcare can be expensive, but many early childhood centers offer government-funded subsidies that can pay for all or part of your childcare costs (often directly to the childcare provider) based on your household income.
  • Inquire about provider professional development. Through accreditation programs, early childhood education providers receive training on various topics to enhance their ability to advance your child’s learning and development. Early childhood education centers may close for professional development sessions, so it can be helpful to ask for a calendar for holidays and professional development days closures to plan your schedule around. You can ensure a childcare center is up to date on accreditation and licensing by searching for the program online.
  • Ask about their environment. Consider scheduling a tour to view the program’s indoor and outdoor spaces. How much access do children have to the outdoor environments, play areas and arts and music education? What protocols do they use to keep the environment clean and respond to medical or other emergencies? How do parents receive communications about children? Does the program provide meals and snacks, and are there requirements for food allergies?
  • Supporting children with special needs. If your child has a disability or special medical need, it is important to find out how the program will offer accommodations. Consider inquiring if the childcare providers have received training on special education and caring for children with complex medical needs. Your child may be eligible for an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) that describes services that your family needs to support the development of their child.
  • Talk to other parents. It can be helpful to talk to other parents and caregivers about their experiences with an early childhood center. Many neighborhoods have listservs where you can search for information and connect with parents in your community.
  • Apply early. Even if you haven’t decided where you would like to enroll your child, consider submitting an enrollment application early since waitlists can be as long as one year for some sites. Also make sure your child’s vaccines are up to date and your child’s health provider has completed a school health information form, which are required by most programs.


Julia DeAngelo Julia DeAngelo, MPH, is a program manager of school strategies and co-leads the Early Childhood Education workgroup at Children’s National.

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